Your Step-By-Step Guide to Creating a Salon-Quality Manicure at Home

Nail a good manicure — that lasts longer than a week — with this easy at-home application guide that takes 30 minutes or less.

person painting their nails at home
Corbis Images.

Maybe your usual manicurist is booked up, or you're simply not interested in shelling out $$$ for your weekly refresh (totally get it). Luckily, you don't need to haul yourself to the salon to get a great manicure.

In fact, it's easy to nail a salon-quality manicure (one that lasts a week or more) at home — all you need is 30 minutes and a few nail grooming essentials. Here, learn the best way to get a flawless DIY manicure, including how to soften cuticles, how to apply your polish like a pro, and how to lock in your color for days.

Step 1: Remove Your Old Polish

Remove old lacquer using nail polish remover and a paper towel or cotton pad (both offer more friction than a tissue and won't shred the way cotton balls can). Always use a non-acetone polish remover, which is less drying than regular formulas.

Step 2: File Your Nails

For better shape control, file your nails while they're dry. Overly abrasive files, including metal ones, will promote nail peeling, so always choose a fine-grade emery board. The best technique: Choose a direction and stick with it using smooth strokes. Don't file back and forth, as this is a surefire way to break the nail.

Step 3: Soften Your Nails and Cuticles

Soften nails and cuticles in a bowl of warm water mixed with cuticle oil, olive oil, or body lotion. After a 10-minute soak, dry off and apply cuticle cream or lotion. Gently ease cuticles back by making tiny circles against the cuticle with a cuticle pusher.

Step 4: Remove the Cuticles

The safest technique for removing cuticles at home is to gently rub them with a warm, damp washcloth, using a circular motion to slough away dead cuticle skin (that white membrane). Although many salons cut cuticles for a quick, clean look, it's safer to just push them back. The cuticle actually forms a protective seal between the nail and the skin and prevents irritants from getting into the skin.

Step 5: Apply Your Base Coat

Wash away oil or lotion with soap and water, and dry nails thoroughly. Re-rubbing them with polish remover (as they often do at salons) shouldn't be necessary and can actually over-dry the nails.

Once your nails are dry and lotion-free, it's time to apply a base coat. If you usually skip this step, you're not the only one — but it's important. A base coat holds polish in place so it lasts longer, and it also prevents dark lacquers from tinting your nails. (Want a multitasker? You can get a nail-strengthening base coat or a nail ridge filler base coat.)

Step 6: Apply Your Polish Like a Pro

Sweep on nail polish the way manicurists do at salons: in three strokes, from base to tip. Go up the center of the nail, then hit each side. In order to apply the thinnest coats possible, use one dip per nail and wipe the brush once per dunk before applying. Wait two minutes between each coat of color (base and top coats included) to speed up overall drying time.

Step 7: Don't Skip the Top Coat

Finish with a top coat. Wearing a top coat can keep your nails healthy by preventing water loss, so nails break less. The best top coats offer a harder, longer-lasting protective shell than the fast-drying ones can provide. If you're in a rush, though, don't risk ruining your nails and opt for the fast-drying option instead.

To prolong the life of your polish, apply a quick-dry top coat every other day. Or, to help prevent nicks, try a silicone-based spray or drying oil.

Step 8: Touch Up As Needed

Touch up any polish mistakes after nails are dry (working on wet nails pretty much guarantees smudging). Use a cotton swab and polish remover, or try a pen made for this specific purpose. If you have a smudge, gently rub it out with a dab of polish remover. When dry, polish only the affected area, then cover the entire nail with a top coat.

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